Speaking Notes for Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine International Conference on Ethics

Speaking Notes for Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine International Conference on Ethics

by NationTalk on February 12, 20073555 Views

Palais des Congrès
Gatineau, Quebec
February 5, 2007

(Traditional Greeting)

I want to thank you for having me here today at this distinguished gathering.

I serve as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the organization that represents First Nations citizens and First Nations governments in Canada.

Canada is home to more than 750,000 First Nations citizens.
We are citizens of many nations, and here I refer to the original First Nations of this land – the Cree, the Mohawk, the Mi’kmaq to the east and the Dene in the North. We are currently on the territory of the Algonquin First Nation.

I myself am a member of the Ojibway nation, from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba.CHILD WELFARE

I have been asked to speak to you today about First Nations Child Welfare.

In 2002, Dr. Douglas Durst of the University of Regina said this about the ongoing effect of state-run child welfare agencies:

“Similar to the TB epidemics of the turn of the century, no other government program has destroyed the lives, hearts, and minds of so many Aboriginal people with lingering pain though childhood until death.”

What could be more important than the health and welfare of our youth? For First Nations, children are our most precious resource. They are central to our worldview. It is the role of the Elders to maintain our language and traditions, and to pass these on to the young ones. It is the role of the young people to carry this knowledge forward.

We all want to ensure our children have every opportunity to fulfill their greatest potential and reach for their brightest dreams.

The well-being of our children is particularly important. More than half of our population is under the age of 23.

By contrast, Canada, in general, has an aging population. Many of the baby boomers are approaching retirement. The Canada West Foundation calculated that over the next ten years, the number of Canadians retiring and leaving the workforce will be greater than those entering the workforce.

If Canada is going to remain a robust and competitive country, it is imperative that we nurture and educate our young First Nations citizens.

First Nations children are not only the future for First Nations – they are the future of Canada as well. Where goes our youth, so goes Canada.


First Nations are seeking a new approach to deal with the welfare of our children. We know we can do a better job in this area than any external governments. In fact, Canadian history is littered with tragic social experiments where our children continue to be the unwilling subjects.

You have no doubt heard about the residential schools experience. Many people of my generation experienced the tragic impacts of the residential schools system first-hand.

The residential schools experience is perhaps the most shameful chapter in Canadian history.

We cannot, and must not, minimize or downplay the impacts of the residential schools. This was an assault on our children, our communities and our cultures. The aftershocks are still being felt today.

The first residential schools were set up in the 1840s. The last one closed in 1996. At their peak, there were 82 residential schools operating in Canada in every province except Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

The residential schools were an attempt at forced assimilation, nothing less than cultural genocide. To those who would say that people were acting in our best interests, we must remember the words of the original Indian Agent, Duncan Campbell Scott, who said the purpose of the schools was to “kill the Indian within the child”. It was an attempt to remove the Indian presence from Canada.

Children were ripped from their families, forcibly removed, confined and beaten if they spoke their language. Children’s braids were cut-off as they walked through the school doors.

Children received very little actual education in the schools. A government study from 1968 found that, as late as 1950, “40% of the teachers had no professional training” and that some teachers had not even graduated from high school. The students – underfed and under-educated – did more physical labour than actual school work.

Worse, cultural lines were broken as children were kept away from their parents, families and siblings. Children were taught that their culture was evil, that their parents were pagans, that their very identity was primitive.

The residential schools were a catastrophe for our people and our communities. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples stated in its final report that even if there had been no abuse in the schools, the impacts would have been devastating. The physical and sexual abuse that took place only made a bad situation worse.

Right now, we estimate that about 80,000 survivors of the residential schools are still alive. Many have succumbed to old age, others to self-inflicted abuse or suicide.

Most Canadians were not aware of the full extent of the schools until the 90s, as some survivors – myself included – slowly started to come forward and share their stories. As time passed, as people began to grapple with their experiences and share their stories, Canada witnessed an outpouring of emotion. This was followed by an avalanche of lawsuits against the federal government.

It has taken decades, but at long last First Nations and Canada may be emerging out from under the dark shadows of residential schools.

We have now witnessed the ratification of a new approach to resolving this legacy. In the past two months, all nine court jurisdictions have approved in principle the historic $1.9 billion residential schools agreement. Over 10,000 Elders have already received early payments.

This new approach stems directly from the work of the Assembly of First Nations. The Residential schools resolution was a personal priority for me, and an organizational priority of the AFN on behalf of all First Nations.

The approach we advocated for, which is now on the verge of full implementation, is a holistic package that addresses compensation for the injuries we endured individually as well as collectively.

Equally as important, our approach incorporates healing, truth telling, reconciliation and memorialization. This will ensure that such a tragedy will never again happen to any Canadian regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity. This settlement is not just for us. It is for all Canadians.

Under our approach, every survivor receives a “common experience” payment, compensation for the loss of language and culture that resulted from the schools.

This was missing from earlier approaches, which only looked at individuals abusing another individual. As I have said, the residential schools were not only about individual abuse. They were set up by the state to abuse an entire culture.

Our approach also involves healing and reconciliation.

There will be a national Truth Commission, similar to the post-Apartheid commission setup by the South African government. People from all sides of the issue can come forward and share their stories.

There will also be opportunities for community commemoration, and community-based healing and cultural revitalization.

I am very disappointed that the Attorney General of Canada has appealed part of a Regina Court decision to approve our package. The appeal is based on legal fees, not on any part of our comprehensive approach.

We are strongly encouraging the Government of Canada and the Saskatchewan Court to sever this legal issue so that the settlement process can proceed without further delay in settlement payments for survivors. We lose an estimated 4 survivors every day. This is an aging population. We cannot let another survivor die without justice, without reconciliation.


Unfortunately, the residential schools were not the end of state-sanctioned social engineering in Canada. The residential schools were followed by another ill-conceived approach to First Nations child welfare.

Some of you may be familiar with “the Sixties Scoop”.

The Sixties Scoop is a term coined by Patrick Johnston, a researcher who wrote a 1983 report for the Canadian Council on Social Development entitled Native Children and the Child Welfare System. Johnston looked at Aboriginal child welfare in Canada and came to some alarming conclusions.

Before the mid-1960s, there was really no organized way to provide child welfare services to First Nations people living on reserves in most parts of the country.

So, in the mid-60s, the federal and provincial governments in many parts of Canada entered into agreements that provided for existing Children’s Aid Societies to deliver child welfare services to First Nations bands.

The results of this expansion were profoundly disturbing. It was nothing less than a wide-scale effort to apprehend First Nations children. Looking only at BC, Johnston found that:

– In 1955, less than 1% of the children in the care of British Columbia’s child welfare branch – about 29 – were of Indian ancestry.;
– By 1964, 1,446 – or 34.2% – of the children in care in B.C. were of Indian ancestry.
– In other words, within ten years the number of Native children in B.C.’s child welfare system had jumped from almost zero to more than one third.

Most shocking is that this pattern was being repeated in many other parts of the country. Apprehending First Nation children became standard operating procedure, instead of being the last resort.

According to Johnston, First Nations children represented between 40 and 50% of children in care in the province of Alberta. Between 60 to 70% of children in care in Saskatchewan; and 50 to 60% of children in care in Manitoba.

Johnston estimated that, nationally, First Nations children were 4.5 times more likely than non-Aboriginal children to be in the care of child welfare authorities. Similar findings have been reported by other experts.

The system claimed to protect First Nations children by taking them away from their families and, often, adopting them out to non-First Nations families. We saw many of our children adopted out to families in other countries — mainly the United States — forever severing their ties to culture and community. This continued well into the 1980s.

The child welfare system was doing essentially the same thing to our children that the residential schools had done: removing children from their families, communities and cultures in an attempt to assimilate them into the colonizing society.

The thinking seemed to be that if colonization could not be achieved through education, it could be achieved through the child welfare system.

These unprecedented levels of apprehensions led Aboriginal communities in the 1970s to put intense pressure on government to stop what, in their view, amounted to yet another effort at cultural genocide.


I want to turn now to today. How do we move forward in a way that recognizes the mistakes of the past? How do we create a fair and humane, or just approach to the well-being of our children?

First, I wish I could report that there has been tremendous progress since Johnston issued his report nearly 25 years ago. There has not. Today, in 2007, First Nations children are three times as likely to be under care as non-First Nations children.

There are three times as many First Nation children in the care of child welfare agencies than there were in attendance at the height of the residential schools.

As we sit here today, approximately 27,000 First Nations children have been removed from their families, most as a result of poverty and neglect.

With full knowledge of this current state of affairs, federal, provincial and territorial governments have done little to address this tremendous social injustice.

The evidence base exists to implement change. We can identify some of the key factors that place First Nations children at a higher risk for intervention.

In response to years of inaction, the Assembly of First Nations has released a Leadership Action Plan on First Nations Child Welfare. As part of this work, the AFN has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

This MoU establishes a partnership to work together on reversing the First Nations child welfare crisis.


Our Leadership Action Plan on First Nations Child Welfare is guided by a vision that embraces the belief that: “First Nations children must have an equal opportunity to grow-up with their family, in their community and in their culture. No First Nation child should have to forgo this opportunity as a result of poverty or an inability to access basic services.”

At the heart of our Action Plan is jurisdiction. As with all Canadians, First Nations have the right to determine what is best for the future of their children, and within their communities.

Jurisdiction means not only the authority to take control; it means the ability to do so. First Nations governments will require a fair share of resources for child welfare.
At a minimum, these resources should be equitable to those provided to provincial and territorial agencies.

First Nations want to create opportunities for our people, but it is extremely difficult when we have to struggle to provide even basic programs and services that have been capped at a two per cent growth rate since 1996.

This is the reason why we see poor conditions in too many First Nations communities, conditions that can resemble the developing world. This is why some communities go into debt: they’d rather risk debt than have families live in over-crowded houses poisoned by black mould or cancer-causing insulation.

Capping our ability to provide for our people is simply unacceptable in any situation, but we simply cannot tolerate this when it comes to the well-being of our children. And we cannot tolerate this in a country as wealthy as Canada.

Last fall, Rudolfo Stavenhagen, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for the United Nations, told Members of Parliament that far too many First Nations live in Third World poverty.

Less than two weeks ago, Canada’s own Governor General, Michaelle Jean, stated that there is a developing world right here in Canada – similar to the countries she just visited in Africa — that we can no longer ignore. And I quote: There is urgent work that needs to be done in our own backyard, and this work could be an example for the entire world.

This cycle of poverty and despair has contributed to the over-representation of First Nations children in the child welfare system, and it weakens our ability to take charge of prevention and intervention measures. The federal government provides almost unlimited funding to place First Nations children in outside foster care, but virtually no funding exists to support children and families in their communities.

Many of our young people are taken from their families because of “neglect”, not because of physical or sexual abuse. Neglect is directly linked to abject degrees of poverty, as well as poor housing conditions and instances of alcohol and substance abuse.

Without essential family supports and community investments, parents cannot improve the well-being of their children and may find their children being taken from them and placed in care. Again, we can see the outline of a vicious circle revolving around an axis of grinding poverty.

We must reverse this trend. There are strong ethical and moral reasons for doing so. There are also strong economic incentives.

A conservative estimate shows that investments in prevention would pay for themselves in 28 years through the gradual reduction in the number of children in care; less demand for services; and reduced costs for the health care and justice systems.

Our Leadership Action Plan on First Nations Child Welfare will achieve three targets:

– First: better capacity of agencies to respond appropriately to child protection intervention;
– Second: more prevention services that promote well-being for children and families;
– And third: a sustainable community infrastructure with safe living conditions for First Nations children and their families.

To achieve these targets, we need action on five specific fronts. First, we are calling for systemic reform. We want to re-orient the current system to focus on meeting the needs of First Nations children and their families, as opposed to focusing solely on risk assessment.

We need to clarify and create cross-jurisdictional arrangements. Too often our children fall into a gap created by jurisdictional squabbling. Who pays for what service – the province, the federal government, or First Nations?

First Nations governments want to work with all levels of government to arrive at fair and appropriate arrangements.
Of course, new and long-term resources are also needed to support First Nations governments and families. We can reduce the number of children in care by creating a needs-based and balanced funding approach.

Right now, very little funding is going to support First Nations families so they can keep their children safely at home. On the other hand, nearly unlimited funds are available to remove them. The only result, as we have seen, is a critical over-representation of First Nation children in the child welfare system.

Our Action Plan also recognizes the need for ongoing monitoring and research. The success of any child welfare system comes down to one simple question: How well are the children doing?

We can answer this question by agreeing on ways to track successes by enhancing the transparency and accountability of federal-provincial/territorial and First Nations governments.

Finally, given the history I have recounted for you, it will come as no surprise that our vision also calls for the development of healing and repatriation programs.

Right now, there are only three repatriation programs in Canada, and they operate only in two provinces — BC and Manitoba. We are calling for a comprehensive strategy that results in the development of programs and services to repatriate survivors of the child welfare system and children presently in the system.

Thousands of displaced adoptees and other survivors of the child welfare system are entitled to the support they need to be repatriated to their community and, where possible, their family.


The final requirement to truly create a healthy and nurturing environment for our children is to raise the quality of life for First Nations communities and First Nations families everywhere.

We are seeking changes to recognize and implement First Nation governments and improve the economic prospects and social conditions of all our people. We want to Make Poverty History with our First Nations Plan for Creating Opportunity.

This Plan will close the gap in health and well-being between First Nations and other Canadians. So far, over 12,000 Canadians have supported our national campaign to eliminate poverty by signing our online petition at www.afn.ca. I encourage all of you to participate in this important initiative.

We have a detailed plan, but I will stick to the broad strokes here because it really boils down to two main components: sustainability and structural change.

Sustainability means funding that is matched to inflation and population growth. It means getting rid of that arbitrary 2% cap that condemns too many of our communities to poverty. It means adequate and accountable resources so First Nations governments can engage in long-term planning and investment and build their economies.

Ultimately, we want to generate our own revenues and be players in Canada’s prosperity. But this also requires structural change.

Structural change is required in order to fix a system that is not working. Canada must abandon colonization and work with First Nations so we can control our own destinies.

First Nations will not accept structural reform that is imposed on us. But we are ready and willing to engage in a cooperative dialogue that lets us make the decisions that affect our lives. The AFN has already done a great deal of work in this regard and it’s well-past time to seriously consider and move on these ideas.

We want to create opportunities for ourselves, and that, in turn, creates opportunities for Canada. Over 10 years ago, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples reported that it costs Canada a lot more to keep First Nations mired in misery.

We want to assert our rights and jurisdiction to govern our lands, resources and communities.
We want to move on implementing the treaties in order to achieve justice and our fair share of the wealth of our homeland.

We want to alleviate poverty and strengthen our communities.

We want to secure opportunities for First Nations within Canada as well as in the international sphere.

These goals are all inter-related. We can move forward on all fronts. We have the plans.

We are already being supported by the private sector in this work. A couple weeks ago we held a Corporate Challenge in Saskatchewan and my message was: First Nations are open for business. We signed a number of partnership agreements at the forum, and governments seem ready to engage as well.

These are the signs that momentum is building.


We are ready to engage, but when it comes to our children we cannot wait any longer.

Our children need action now. So, I am announcing today that we are putting governments on notice that a lack of action should be viewed as putting children at risk.

Accordingly, the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada are considering filing an official complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Canada against the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

The complaint will be based on the inequitable levels of child welfare funding provided to First Nations children and families by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

As you have heard today, there is substantial evidence spanning over ten years that inequitable funding is contributing to the over representation of First Nations children in child welfare. The Department is aware of this evidence and agrees with it. Yet we see no systematic increases in funding or overall approach.

Such systemic discrimination must end. This situation for children in care must end. I have always said that I would rather negotiate than litigate or demonstrate. But if this is the only way to bring attention and action to the situation, so be it.

Our complaint will assert that Indian Affairs’ funding formula is in contravention of Article 3 of the Human Rights Act. Registered First Nations children and families living on reserve are provided with inequitable levels of child welfare services because of their race and national ethnic origin, compared to other Canadian children.

I hope that we will still be able to resolve this situation through cooperation and partnership. However, absent of any current process to resolve the issue, then perhaps deeds – not deliberations – will compel action.

Echoing the title of the recent Senate report on Specific Claims — “Negotiation or confrontation?: It’s Canada’s Choice”– this also applies to our situation.

In terms of a question of ethics, the question is succinctly: “If you know the funding is inadequate and you fail to act, are you responsible for the resulting tragedies?


Before closing, I want to point out that this weekend’s Globe and Mail national newspaper had an excellent feature titled “A Slap in the Face to Every Canadian”- about how international humanitarian agencies like Save the Children are stepping in to help close the gap in the poverty and despair that fflict so many First Nations communities.

Our people are survivors of the residential schools, survivors of the Sixties Scoop, and survivors of centuries of colonization.

For too long, our people have been subject to social policy that amounts to social engineering. The experiments have failed, and we bear the consequences.

This attitude must change. This approach must stop. Now is the time for reconciliation, resolution, and recognition of our historic rights — to live our own lives and be accountable for our children and our communities.

To do anything less is to deny and denigrate the foundations of mutual respect and mutual recognition on which this country was founded.

To do anything less is to ignore the key principles and recommendations of the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples report.

We can begin to walk a new path together. We can look ahead and see healthy and happy First Nations children that are thriving in a peaceful and prosperous Canada.

We must harness our collective wisdom and will to make this vision a reality.

We can work together. We must work together. We owe it to ourselves; we owe it to our country.

And most of all, we owe it to our future, our children.


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